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How Are SAT Subject Tests Scored?

Posted by Ellen McCammon | May 19, 2019 8:00:00 PM

SAT Subject Tests

 

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Picture this: you sit down to take an SAT Subject Test. You answer somewhere from 50 to 95 questions in an hour. A few weeks later, you log on to your College Board account and see a score for your test on a scale of 200-800. Somehow, the results from your multiple-choice test got turned into this final scaled score. But how did this happen? How are SAT Subject Tests scored?

In this article, I’ll discuss how your raw score for the exam is calculated, how this is converted into your final score, and what SAT Subject Test scoring means for you in terms of setting—and meeting—a target score.

 

How Is Your Raw SAT Subject Score Calculated?

Your raw score is your point total on the SAT Subject Test before it’s been converted to your final score on the 200-800 point scale. So if there are 60 questions, the highest raw score you could get would be 60. 

However, unlike with the regular SAT, your raw score isn’t based only on how many questions you get right but also on how many questions you get wrong. This so-called "guessing penalty," which was designed to discourage random guessing, means that for every question you get wrong, a fraction of a point will be deducted from your raw point total for questions you’ve answered correctly.

The point deduction for answering a given question incorrectly is based on the number of answer choices for the question:
  • -1/4 point per incorrect five-choice question
  • -1/3 point per incorrect four-choice question
  • -1/2 point per incorrect three-choice question
  • 0 points per question left unanswered

Most questions on SAT Subject Tests are five-choice questions, so the guessing penalty is usually just a quarter-point.

Subject Test raw scores are rounded to the nearest whole point. In other words, half-points and above round up, while anything below a half-point rounds down. So a 33.25 would round down to 33, whereas a 33.5 would round up to 34.

Your raw score, then, can be expressed as follows:

# of answers right − (# of answers wrong x guessing penalty) =

raw score (rounded to nearest whole number)

If, on a 60-question Subject Test such as Literature, you get 45 questions right, get five wrong, and leave 10 blank, your raw score would be as follows:

  • 45 answered correctly  (5 answered incorrectly x 0.25 guessing penalty) =
  • 45  1.25 = 43.75
  • 43.75 rounded to the nearest whole number = 44
  • Raw score = 44 points

To recap: SAT Subject Test scoring is based on both how many questions you get right and how many you get wrong. Once that number is established, though, how does the College Board come up with your 200-800 point score? Read on to find out!

 

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The College Board: a pictorial representation.

 

How Your Final SAT Subject Test Score Is Calculated

If you've been taking practice tests using The Official Study Guide to ALL SAT Subject Tests, you might have noticed that there is a chart for converting your raw score on a practice test to a scaled score after each practice exam.

These charts can give you a loose ballpark as to how a certain raw score on one test might convert to a scaled score from 200 to 800, but they're not exact. There is no consistent formula you can use to convert a raw SAT Subject Test score to a scaled score.

This is because the College Board equates scaled scores to make it so that scores are comparable between different administrations of the test. Equating accounts for small difficulty variations and minor differences in the skill levels of test takers on different test dates.

Basically, your individual score won’t suffer if the people who took the Subject Test with you were unusually strong in that subject. (On the flip side, your score won't be better, either, if the people who sat with you were unusually weak in the subject.)

In other words, a 650 from the Math II test you took in November will reflect the same level of mastery as Anya’s 650 score on the Math II test next May. Even if your test administration was full of state math-team champions and hers had mostly people who failed geometry, neither of these factors will influence your final scaled scores!

Equating works to your advantage—you don’t want to have to worry about who else is taking the test the same day as you, or whether your edition of the test will be a little harder than usual.

I do not, unfortunately, know the witchcraft (and by witchcraft, I mean statistics) through which the equating process occurs. Nor could I learn, unless I had access to lots of secret College Board test data.

What I do have is some advice on how to approach the relationship between raw scores and scaled scores.

 

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The Magic Castle where equating takes place.

 

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Setting a Target Scaled Score for an SAT Subject Test

To reiterate what we've gone over so far, each SAT Subject Test is equated to give you a final scaled score on a scale of 200-800. The SAT Subject Test score you should aim for ultimately depends on what scores the schools you're applying to are looking for. 

To figure out what your goal score should be, look up the average or recommended SAT Subject Test scores of admitted applicants for each of your schools. For example, if you're applying to the Ivy League, this guide goes over the scores you should aim for on each Subject Test (depending on your major). You can also look up SAT score info on schools' official websites or contact schools' admissions offices and ask them what you should aim for.

Note that more and more schools merely recommend SAT Subject Test scores and don't require them. That said, if you're applying to a highly selective school, you should still try to submit Subject Test scores since a high score can greatly boost your chances of admission.

If you can't find exact score data for a school, estimate what score you'll need to get based on how selective the institution is. Competitive schools generally want to see SAT Subject Test scores in at least the 700s—sometimes 750+.

Once you've filled out your chart, look for the highest score on it. This will be your goal (scaled) score for that SAT Subject Test. Get this score, and you'll have an excellent shot at getting into all the schools you're applying to. In the example above, a perfect 800 would give you your best shot at getting into these top-tier schools.

But what raw score should you aim for on your SAT Subject Test?

 

How to Set a Target Raw Score for an SAT Subject Test

You might be wondering what raw score you should be targeting based on your target scaled score. Due to the equating process and variations among tests, there’s no way to determine exactly what raw score you'll need in order to get your target scaled score. That said, there are ways to give you a rough idea.

 

Option 1: Consult Raw Score Conversion Charts in the Official Guide

For starters, if you have The Official Study Guide to ALL SAT Subject Tests (which I highly recommend if you're taking any Subject Tests!), you can flip to the raw score-scaled score conversion chart at the back of the practice test for your subject to get a decent approximation of what raw score you should be aiming for to get a certain scaled score.

For example, on the Literature test, you can see that a raw score of 55 out of 61 possible points converts to 770. Meanwhile, on Math Level II, 46 (out of a possible 50 raw points) converts to 800. And so on.

Here's an abbreviated conversion chart we've put together for those who don't have access to the official SAT Subject Tests guide. Though this chart will not work perfectly for every Subject Test, it should still be able to give you an estimated raw score to aim for:

Raw Score Lit US Hist W Hist
95 800
90 800 800
85 800 800
80 800 800
75 770 780
70 730 750
65 700 720
60 800 670 690
55 770 650 670
50 730 620 640
45 690 600 610
40 650 570 580
35 610 540 560
30 570 520 530
25 530 490 500
20 490 460 470
15 450 440 440
10 410 410 410
5 370 390 380
0 & below 200-330 230-360 220-360

 

Raw Score Math I Math II
50 800 800
45 760 800
40 720 760
35 670 700
30 620 650
25 580 610
20 510 580
15 470 540
10 430 500
5 390 460
0 & below 250-350 300-410

 

Raw Score BioE BioM Chem Phy
85 800
80 800 800 790
75 780 790 760 800
70 750 760 740 800
65 720 730 710 800
60 690 700 690 800
55 670 670 670 770
50 640 640 640 730
45 610 620 620 700
40 580 590 590 670
35 550 560 570 630
30 520 530 540 600
25 480 490 520 560
20 450 460 490 530
15 410 420 460 490
10 370 390 430 460
5 340 350 400 420
0 & below 220-
320
240-
330
270-
370
270-
390

 

 

Languages — Listening
Raw Score Chinese French German
85 800 800 770
80 800 800 750
75 770 800 730
70 740 760 700
65 720 730 680
60 690 690 650
55 670 660 620
50 640 630 590
45 620 600 570
40 590 570 540
35 560 540 520
30 540 520 500
25 510 490 470
20 490 460 450
15 460 430 420
10 430 400 390
5 410 370 360
0 & below 220-380 200-330 270-330

 

Languages — Listening
Raw Score Japanese Korean Spanish
85 800
80 800 800 780
75 770 780 740
70 730 750 700
65 690 720 650
60 640 690 620
55 600 660 590
50 560 630 550
45 530 600 530
40 490 570 500
35 460 540 470
30 430 510 440
25 400 480 410
20 370 450 390
15 340 410 360
10 300 380 340
5 270 350 310
0 & below 200-240 200-320 200-280

 

 

Languages — Reading
Raw Score French German Modern Hebrew
85 800 800 800
80 800 780 770
75 800 750 700
70 770 720 640
65 730 680 600
60 700 640 560
55 670 610 530
50 640 570 500
45 610 540 480
40 590 510 460
35 560 480 440
30 530 450 420
25 510 430 400
20 480 400 390
15 450 380 370
10 430 360 350
5 400 330 320
0 & below 230-380 200-310 200-290

 

Languages — Reading
Raw Score Italian Latin Spanish
85 800
80 800 780
75 770 750
70 740 800 720
65 710 790 680
60 680 750 640
55 660 720 600
50 630 680 560
45 600 650 530
40 570 610 500
35 540 580 470
30 500 540 450
25 460 510 420
20 430 480 400
15 400 460 380
10 370 430 360
5 330 410 340
0 & below 200-300 270-390 200-310

 

 

body_raw_veggies.jpgRaw veggies are just like raw scores—only greener.

 

Option 2: Use SAT Subject Test Percentiles

You can also check out the percentiles for all SAT Subject Tests. These tell you what percentile rank each scaled score corresponds to. They won’t tell you the corresponding raw score, but you can still get a solid idea of how many questions you can afford to get wrong for a top score.

Here's a brief overview of the current percentiles for all SAT Subject Tests:

Score Lit US Hist W Hist Math I Math II
800 99 97 96 99 79
750 91 83 85 92 60
700 75 64 71 74 45
650 56 46 55 57 31
600 40 30 40 42 17
550 28 19 24 29 9
500 19 12 14 19 4
450 12 7 6 10 2
400 5 3 3 5 1-
350 1 1 1- 1 1-
300 1- 1- 1- 1-
250 1- 1-

 

 

Score BioE BioM Chem Phy
800 97 94 90 87
750 88 79 72 70
700 74 61 54 53
650 55 42 38 38
600 37 27 24 25
550 23 16 15 15
500 13 10 8 9
450 8 6 4 4
400 5 3 1 1
350 2 1 1- 1-
300 1- 1-
250 1- 1-

 

Language — Listening
Score CH FR GE JA KO SP
800 62 80 96 88 62 94
750 22 66 83 50 21 74
700 12 53 66 33 11 55
650 7 38 52 24 6 38
600 4 27 42 16 4 24
550 3 17 28 11 2 15
500 1 10 17 6 1 9
450 1- 4 10 3 1 4
400 1- 1 5 2 1- 2
350 1- 2 1 1- 1
300 1- 1- 1-
250 1- 1-

 

 

Languages — Reading
Score FR GE MH IT LA SP
800 87 93 85 88 94 92
750 77 76 71 64 82 77
700 65 63 63 49 67 60
650 53 51 55 36 54 44
600 41 41 46 24 41 30
550 28 31 38 16 27 19
500 17 22 29 11 14 11
450 9 13 16 7 5 6
400 3 6 8 5 1 2
350 1- 2 2 3 1
300 1- 1- 1 1-
250 1- 1-

 

So how can you use these percentiles to determine how many questions you can get wrong? Let's take a look.

If an 800 is a 99th percentile score, as it is for Literature and Math Level I, the curve is going to be much steeper than it is for a test like Math Level II (in which an 800 is only a 79th percentile score). That means that to get an 800 on Math II, you have to score better than only 80% of test takers, while to get an 800 on Math I, you have to score better than 99% of test takers!

Basically, the higher the percentile number is for an 800 score, the fewer questions you can afford to get wrong for a score at the top of the range. This also means that a top score for these exams really stands out.

 

Option 3: Look at Average SAT Subject Test Scores

A final option is to look at the average scores for each SAT Subject Test. Here's an overview of the current averages for each test:

SAT Subject Test Average Score
Literature 607
US History 640
World History 622
Math Level I 605
Math Level II 693
Ecological Biology 618
Molecular Biology 650
Chemistry 666
Physics 667
Chinese with Listening 760
French with Listening 668
German with Listening 618
Japanese with Listening 703
Korean with Listening 761
Spanish with Listening 662
French 628
German 620
Modern Hebrew 612
Italian 666
Latin 626
Spanish 647

Source: The College Board

A high average score doesn’t necessarily mean the test is easy, though—it could also mean that the students who take it tend to have a high skill level in the subject. Moreover, on tests with high averages, it can be hard to differentiate yourself from the pack, so that’s something else to keep in mind.

Overall, there’s no secret way to know what raw score will correspond to a given scaled score when you sit down to take an SAT Subject Test. However, you can get a ballpark idea of how to meet your target scaled score by using official SAT conversion charts and recent percentile rankings.

 

ballet-534357_640.jpg

Stand out like the ballerina in the front. Wait, Elsa, is that you?

 

Want to get better grades and test scores?

We can help. PrepScholar Tutors is the world's best tutoring service. We combine world-class expert tutors with our proprietary teaching techniques. Our students have gotten A's on thousands of classes, perfect 5's on AP tests, and ludicrously high SAT Subject Test scores.

Whether you need help with science, math, English, social science, or more, we've got you covered. Get better grades today with PrepScholar Tutors.

Get Better Grades with a Personal Tutor

 

Meeting a Target Raw Score on an SAT Subject Test

Due to the guessing penalty, meeting a raw target score isn’t as simple as answering a certain number of questions correctly. You also need to think about the points you’ll lose from incorrect answers.

The guessing penalty doesn’t mean that you should never guess if you aren’t completely sure of the answer. The more answer choices you can eliminate, the better your chances are of getting the right answer and avoiding the penalty.

Let’s go over the math. Most SAT Subject Test questions have five answer choices. If guessing randomly, you'll have a 20% chance of getting the question right. Thus, you would most likely get one in five questions correct if randomly guessing. 

But if for every correct answer you get 1 point and for every four questions wrong you lose 0.25 points, this comes out to a penalty of 1 point per question. This means you'll net zero points! More importantly, though, it means you’ve wasted time. Clearly, random guessing is not a great strategy.

But what if you could eliminate one answer choice per question? Assuming you’ve eliminated the answer correctly, this gives you a slightly higher 25% chance of getting the question right, or an average of one in four questions right. In this case, you'll get 1 point for every correct answer and lose 0.25 points for every three questions, resulting in a penalty of 0.75 points per question. That’s a net of 0.25 points!

Is this really worth it, though? Remember that raw scores round to the nearest whole number, so if you're guessing on four questions, your 0.25 points won’t help you go up a point—they’ll just round back down. Unless you guess on eight questions with one answer choice eliminated per question, you are not likely to net any gains to your raw score this way.

It’s a different story if you can eliminate two answer choices per question. If you guess on three five-choice questions and can eliminate two answers each for those questions, you'll have a 33% chance of getting each question right. Chances are, you’ll get one of those three questions right. That’s 1 point. You’ll get penalized for your two wrong answers by 0.25 points each. That’s -0.5 points.

One point gained - 0.5 point penalty = a net of 0.5 points. Since raw scores are rounded to the nearest point, that adds a point to your raw score! Awesome. And your chances only go up the more answer choices you can eliminate.

Keep in mind that this is just probability. Depending on whether you’re lucky or unlucky, you could get better or worse results. But the math is definitely on your side for guessing if you can eliminate two or more answers. This will boost your raw score and help you meet your target score.

 

Key Takeaways: SAT Subject Tests Scoring

SAT Subject Test scoring is a little unusual because your score doesn’t just account for how many questions you answered correctly—it also includes deductions for questions you answered incorrectly. 

Your raw score is calculated by subtracting the penalty for each question you got wrong from the points of questions you answered correctly, rounded to the nearest whole number.

The College Board then converts your raw score to a scaled score via a process called equating so that scores from different administrations of the test are comparable with each other.

Because of this, it’s hard to say with total certainty what raw score you'll need in order to hit a particular scaled score. That said, you can get a general idea using the conversion charts in The Official Guide to ALL SAT Subject Tests and the most recent Subject Test percentile rankings.

When you're trying to hit your target raw score, remember that on questions you aren't totally sure of, the more answer choices you can eliminate, the better your chances are of guessing the correct answer and avoiding a penalty.

You can do it, you beautiful SAT butterfly!

 

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The rarely seen SAT butterfly. 

 

What's Next?

How many SAT Subject Tests should you take, anyway? Read our guide to get expert advice on what the best number of tests is for you. In addition, see which SAT Subject Tests will be easiest for you.

Wondering which colleges require you to send SAT Subject Test scores? See our complete list

Taking the regular SAT, too? Be sure to review our in-depth guide to the SAT format.

 

Need a little extra help prepping for your Subject Tests? We have the industry's leading SAT Subject Test prep programs (for all non-language Subject Tests). Built by Harvard grads and SAT Subject Test full or 99th %ile scorers, the program learns your strengths and weaknesses through advanced statistics, then customizes your prep program to you so that you get the most effective prep possible.

Learn more about our Subject Test products below:

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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